Unmasking the Phantom: Romanticizing the Face of Horror

Phantom of the Opera Mask

Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera, has been filmed at least a half a dozen times, turned into a very successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and used as inspiration for one of the most ubiquitous halloween masks (that many wear without ever having seen Lon Chaney’s makeup or even heard “Music of the Night”). Still, there’s something in the mask itself that is inarguably attractive. We hide our true selves — a self that, perhaps, only a lover or trusted friend can know. Not the self we are at work, or at a party. Carl Jung would say those are masks of the persona: the ego adapting to its circumstances. But the mask that hides a self that is something horrible, or something to be pitied (or both)?  That’s something different altogether.

In the gothic tradition to which Leroux’s novel belongs (along with all the adaptations that come later), the masked face is romanticized for that very reason. Is there a tortured man beneath the mask that needs only find love to be free? Or is there a fiend waiting for us.

THE NOVEL (1910)
Lon Chaney, The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Lon Chaney, The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

For Leroux, the mask as symbol is quite complex; in addition to having his phantom, Erik, hide a hideous visage, Leroux writes that “none will ever be a true Parisian who has not learned to wear a mask of gaiety over his sorrows and one of sadness, boredom, or indifference over his inward joy.” We are challenged to confront that we all wear masks — not just the ghost of the Opera house that longs for the beautiful Christine.

The tale is familiar (well, to people like me it is): Erik hears Christine sing, and is captivated. But he knows himself to be so deformed that Christine will be repulsed by him. So he waits, secretly aiding Christine is her career. Minor characters are literally disposed of, and the main characters eventually find themselves at a pivotal moment when the mask will come off. Hideous boy will stand before beautiful girl, and all will be revealed.

But all what? Disgust? Pity? Overwhelming love?

Here’s the novel and its many adaptations differ.

In the novel, when Erik is alone with Christine — away from her suitor, Raoul (whom Erik has imprisoned) — he lifts his mask, revealing his deformity, and kisses her on the forehead. She returns his kiss. Erik then reveals that he has never received a kiss — not even from his mother — and is quite overwhelmed with equal parts sadness and joy. He tells Christine that he has never felt so close to another human being, and turns from wicked ways — releasing Raoul. Why? The novel makes it clear: he has been saved by love. Indeed, Leroux has him dying because of love at the end of the novel. Christine buries him, then takes off with the handsome Raoul.

THE SILENT FILM (1925)

Fifteen years later, in 1925, Universal would adapt the novel to the silent silver screen.  Producer Carl Laemmle (who would later go on to produce both Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) for Universal) chose Lon Chaney — the man of a thousand faces — for the central role. And in a post World War I world where the horrors of war left mutilated men, it is not beyond reason to assume that Chaney based at least some of his makeup on the poor broken souls who had returned from Europe with faces torn apart by German shrapnel.

Noseless and lipless, with a sunken-eyed face that looks more like a skull than that of a man, Chaney’s phantom goes way beyond the novel with the extent of Erik’s deformity, and it changes the whole tone of the story. Despite Christine still getting the attention from the phantom that leads to he success at the Opera house, her fear — our fear — is real. This phantom illicits horror — or at the very best, our pity. And instead of Erik lifting his mask in an act of love, Chaney’s phantom is dramatically unmasked, by Christine, in one of cinema’s most written-about reveals.

MONSTER OR MISUNDERSTOOD MAN?

Erik’s unmasking is not his own decision. It is sudden. It is terrifying. And it leaves Christine horrified on the floor. A captured Raoul — again, Christine’s suitor — can only be freed if Christine makes a choice of two levers. A challenge is made by Erik. One lever will free Raoul. One will blow up the Opera House. But there’s a catch: free Raoul, and agree to marry Erik.

The tension is palpable. The audience sees Erik as a true monster, and wants so very much for Christine and Raoul to be together. And that is what they get, in a sacrifice made by Erik. He tricks Christine. His intention was apparently to free Raoul all along, and escape the Opera House with Christine. Only he is thwarted by an angry mob who attacks him and throws him into the Seine. Christine and Raoul? They are seen on honeymoon at picture’s end.

Still, the filmmakers initially intended to preserve the original ending of the novel.  They filmed scenes in which Erik dies of a broken heart at his organ after Christine leaves him. But the preview audience apparently hated this ending. They wanted the monster punished, and the lovers to be reunited.

REMAKES AND MIS-TAKES

Throughout the many adaptions — from Claude Rains in 1943, to Herbert Lom in Hamer’s version of 1962, to Brian de Palma’s bizarre Phantom of the Paradise (1974) — the stories change.

Music becomes the true love of the phantom in some. Disfigurement at brith because a tragic encounter with acid in another. But the central theme beneath all is this push and pull between the beautiful chanteuse and the disfigured musician. Sometimes repulsion. Sometimes attraction. Always Romantic in the Gothic novel sense of the term. Except, perhaps, in DePalma’s work, where the Gothic gives way to Glam.

THE MUSICAL (1986 — present day)
Phantom of the Opera musical
Phantom of the Opera musical

But outside of the novel, no version is more romanticized than the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical — which manages to fuse so many elements of the tale told over the last hundred years. In the blending of outcomes, the best and worst case scenarios for poor Erik co-exist. Yes, he is hideous. But he is romantic. And despite Christine’s love for Raoul, there is a bond between her and the phantom — one that often finds its way, as with most musicals, into song — and a gift of a ring to Christine.

The unmasking has mixed reaction — at first fear, but it soon becomes pity. This pity leads to tenderness. And tenderness, to love. At the end, Erik realizes that despite his love for Christine, he must release her to Raoul. The rightful couple begin to escape Erik’s subterranean lair, but not before Christine decides to return the ring that Erik had given her as a token of his love. She finds instead a mob that has descended into the lair to kill the phantom. But as she lifts aside the cloak where she believes Erik to be, she finds only… a mask.

MASKS

Masks play a central role in all adaptations of the Phantom of the Opera. Some are there for sudden horror (kill the monster!). And some are there for romantic imaginings (where did the poor tortured artist go?).

Masque of the Red Death
Masque of the Red Death

Some masks are even there to further hide the true persona — or perhaps remind us all that despite love or terror, death awaits us all. In many adaptations, Erik attends a ball dressed as Poe’s Red Death. His mask is invariably a skull. Memento Mori. The reminder that life is fleeting, and that we all must die.

In the end, it is the use of the mask — and the unmasking — that addresses our own extremes of attraction and repulsion. The persona projected by those behind masks can be quite attractive, and we can easily fall in love with the man or woman behind the mask. But in our subconscious minds, there may always be the question of what is that same man or woman hiding… and why. We become suspicious while at the same time intrigued.

We flirt with what is captivating, while fearing being held captive.

And masks are rarely literal.

 

No Man

There are no monsters like those born of an undeveloped conscience. There are few motivators like those bred in a moment of intense fear. No man is immune, but only some are tested.

Very few, if any, learn.

Photo of early B.E.2c supplied to the RNAS in 1915. Squadrons in Belgium and France would have used them. The RNAS would eventually merge with the Royal Flying Corps in 1918. Original copyright on image probably belonged to the Royal Navy.

At no time during the descent did Charles Partridge feel guilty. Flak guns had torn the rudder to ribbons, and Nash, the pilot, had taken shrapnel to the chest. Slumped against the stick, the wounded man’s weight sent them spiraling. But Partridge sat still. He remained calm. To climb across the fuselage of the BE2c would have been suicide. This was not a time for heroics.

Mum, tell Dad I tried.

It was a letter from George Partridge, a veteran of the Boer War — a man of influence who was certain that his son could serve some better purpose than as a clerk at a military hospital — that had gotten Charles attached to the photographic unit of the Number 6 Squadron (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/No NULL._6_Squadron_RAF). There, the young man was trained as an observer. At the age of 21, Partridge claimed distinction as one of the more competent reconnaissance photographers in all of His Majesty’s Royal Flying Corps. But he was certainly no daredevil. Not like Nash. No, Charles was better suited to the front seat: the observer’s seat.

He had learned how to recognize artillery and infantry from thousands of feet above the ground, and how to pinpoint the enemy’s position unlike any scout on horseback ever could. He was shown how to steady a heavy plate camera over the cockpit’s edge, and how to focus on targets. It was an opportunity to serve his country without carrying a rifle. That by doing so he could avoid the misery of fighting and dying in the muck of the trenches, well, that was a welcome bonus, and one for which he would make no apology. He was no hero.

Oculi Exercitus. Theirs were the eyes of the army.

Let others be the balls, thought Partridge.

The trenches terrified him. He had heard the horror stories from the wounded — tales of lice and vermin and blood and offal. It made his stomach churn. But service in the Royal Flying Corps — facing danger in the skies without ever having to set foot in the trenches — this could at least preserve his dignity and, perhaps, make his family proud.

It was a privilege to serve as an observer in the RFC. To be sure, the romance appealed to him. That no one had ever adequately prepared him for the crashing part was of minor concern. Pilots, it seemed, never really gave the matter much consideration. If you crashed, it was just accepted — with a peculiar arrogance — that you would simply walk away. It was an attitude that the observer found oddly reassuring. To even acknowledge the potential for calamity was bad luck.

An observer of the Royal Flying Corps in a Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c reconnaissance aircraft demonstrates a C type aerial reconnaissance camera fixed to the side of the fuselage, 1916 (from the collections of the Imperial War Museum)

To date, Partridge had, indeed, been lucky: eight successful reconnaissance flights with Nash at the controls. There was no reason to believe his ninth mission would be any different. Spring had arrived early. The weather was unusually mild for mid March. It was to be a routine mission: a few passes in the Belgian dawn to support the Second Army. Reassigned from Flanders, Canadian troops were assisting the French and digging in north of the tiny town of Ypres (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Second_Battle_of_Ypres). With enemy howitzers pounding the Allies daily, aerial photographs of German artillery positions along the Ypres salient were needed.

Ypres. Looking at the map, Nash pronounced it “wipers”. It was only when the Major corrected his pronunciation at the briefing that Partridge realized that the name of the town sounded more like “jeepers.”

How appropriate it seemed now, listening through clamped palms as pieces of the wings came apart in the trees. Jeepers indeed. Intelligence had underestimated the number of guns that the Germans had set up in and around Ypres. It was only minutes into their flight when the popping of the flak cannons began. Partridge could hear them still as he opened his eyes.

They had crashed into a field of scarred and smoldering trees — mere twigs that rose like spent matchsticks. But the fuselage, which had come to rest near the top of a still standing oak, was miraculously intact.

The passengers were not so fortunate.

Flipped within the upended aircraft, fifteen to twenty feet in the air, and a quarter of a mile, maybe less, from the front lines, both the observer and his pilot were pinned within the cockpit. Now a makeshift cradle, the remains of the battered biplane teetered in a nest of branches.

Even if he could manage to fall free, the young lieutenant soon surmised that it would be a difficult run to any trench, friendly or otherwise, without being seen under the bright light of the morning’s sun. Shelling drowned the landscape, and heavy machine guns echoed from all sides.

The crash was bound to have attracted attention. Enemy infantry surely would have seen the plane being shot down. Scouts must have reported his position, and artillery might begin to shell the trees. He knew had to move quickly, and soon.

Remembering that Nash kept a small pocketknife tucked away inside his flight jacket, Partridge thought that if he could somehow stretch out of his seat and reach the man, he might retrieve the blade and cut himself free. But as he reached out in vain with strained fingertips in the direction of his fallen comrade, he froze. Nash suddenly jerked and let out a terrible cry. It was as if someone had suddenly awakened the pilot from a horrendous dream.

“My God, man. You’re alive.”

“Barely,” he whispered, eyes open but glassy. “What the devil happened?”

“Fritz used us for target practice,” answered the Lieutenant, relieved to no longer be alone. “Christ, with all the blood, I thought you were dead.”

“Soon will be, I would think. Where are we?” he wheezed.

“Maybe a half a mile northeast of the last known French positions. Somewhere near the edge of the woods outside of Langemarck.”

It was a small village near the front that Partridge remembered from the briefing. There was no way to be certain unless he could get clear of the many trees.

“Some observer,” said Nash. “Didn’t take notes on the way down?”

“Kind of difficult, what with all the screaming.”

Nash laughed, albeit briefly, as laughter brought with it a dreadful cough — one that sounded like a man drowning.

“Hurry up and cut us loose,” said Nash, slowly reaching into his jacket to produce the little knife. As he handed the blade to his eager comrade, blood gathered at the corners of his mouth, trickling to the edges of a finely groomed mustache.

“Hang on,” huffed Partridge.

The cockpit’s straps, like sleeves of asylum restraints, held them both. But by using Nash’s blade to saw away at the leather bands, Partridge found new mobility within seconds.

Dangling like some kind of puppet, he tugged at the remaining ties that bound him, and shifted his weight to adjust to the freedom. But it was too late. Just as soon as the final strap was severed, he rapidly fell to the boggy earth below him.

“Lieutenant?” Nash felt the commotion but could not see that his comrade had fallen clear of the crash site. “Partridge, are you there?” A heavy machine gun chattered in the distance.

Muscles aching, the grounded observer rolled over onto his back and looked back up into the tree. There, he could see his wounded friend still wriggling within the suspended cockpit. He could hear him pleading.

“Partridge?” Nash begged for an answer. “Please don’t leave me here.”

But as no branch was in reach, and the trunk could not be scaled — certainly not by a man whose wind had been knocked from him — the Lieutenant feared that there was no way humanly possible to save the stranded pilot.

“Charles?” came a wet and tired plea from within the branches.

But there would be no reply.

Head lowered, Charles Partridge could think of nothing that would help the poor bastard now. No words of hope. No consolation. No apology. The machine gun fire had intensified, and it was no longer safe for him to remain near the tree.

He would have to leave Nash behind.

Dropping to the ground, he crawled a few meters toward the safety of a waterlogged shell crater. There, within its concave recess, safe from the spray of the guns, he curled up, raised the collar of his jacket, and gripped the tiny knife. It would be hours before the pilot’s calls for help would eventually subside, and as evening swallowed them, flares and bomb bursts drowned the man’s last remaining cries.

It was early morning when Partridge mustered the courage to exit his accidental bunker. The fusillade had abated, and there hadn’t been a flare overhead for half an hour. Soon, the sun would rise. When he heard what sounded like a “Stand To” order in the distance, he sprang to life. If luck were still on his side, an Allied trench was near. He might drop into a listening post or even find a break in the barbed wire.

Gathering the presence of mind necessary to conquer his fear, Partridge knew no other thoughts save prayer. He began: Our father who art in heaven, and was up out of the hole before his feet could argue the case to his brain.

In the light of spreading dawn, the terrified observer quickly studied the landscape. To the southwest was where he had heard the voices. He was certain he had spotted a pile of sandbags less than a hundred yards away. Beyond them was bound to be a network of trenches. If he remained close to the ground, the enemy may not see him.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Adrenaline, like tiny excitable wires, surged, and as he gained speed, dragging himself on all fours across this no man’s land, his confidence grew. No gunfire had yet erupted, and his mind, occupied, continued with prayer.

Give us this day our daily bread. And, he lost his concentration.

Fatigued, he dove in a long, narrow hole — a sap, perhaps — an extension of a trench, but one that had since collapsed. Whatever its role, the hole appeared to be dug out by hand. That was a good sign.

Give us this day our daily bread. He tried to find his place again.

So tired. So hungry.

Odd time to think of food.

A few yards from where he rested, a mortar shell exploded.

Forgive us our trespasses.

The boom had shocked him back to reality, a place where salvation was soon to be revealed. Up and out of the hole, he spied a gap in the wire, a few dozen yards away, and big enough for a man his size to squeeze through.

He was so happy to have been only five foot five.

Running like a man possessed, through the gap and over the parapet, Partridge tumbled blindly. Landing in a muddy trench, he wiped his face, only to realize that a bayonet — about a foot in length — was fixed steadily upon his eyes. It gleamed beside the barrel of a ready rifle.

Forgive me Nash for I knew not what to do.

“Password.” It was neither question nor request, but more of a command from the oddly dressed, dark-skinned sentry that stood above him. With rifle aimed at the unidentified interloper, the foreigner said it nervously again and again, adding: “Mot! Mot!” His French was natural, but not native. Partridge froze, not knowing the proper response.

In what little of his exhausted breath remained, the Lieutenant identified himself with hands raised in surrender. But it made no apparent difference to the sentry. The red kepi atop the man’s head flounced further to the side as his volume increased. There were others now standing about the strange man, speaking hurried but recognizable English. Tommies! Each wore the familiar uniform: dirty wool khaki and a pie tin helmet.

Each pointed his rifle at Partridge.

“A flyboy? Thought we saw one of you chaps going down in the trees.” The speaker was not visible, but his accent was unmistakably British.

The sentry withdrew his bayonet, but did not lower his Enfield.

“Oh, let him go, Khalil,” said the voice, somewhat passively and with great exhaustion as if the utterance were a chore. “He looks relatively harmless.”

With that, the sentry lowered his rifle, and Partridge got his first glimpse of his savior. The man must have been the commanding officer, as he was older and not so filthy as the others that stood by his side.

“Major Horace Walker,” began the speaker, now in clear view, motioning with an outstretched hand and lifting Partridge from the mud. “1st Canadian Division, left wing of His Majesty’s Second Army, and, well,” he said, straining, “apparently at your service here in this godforsaken bog.”

“Thank you, Major,” said Partridge, accepting the man’s assistance. “That’s very kind of you.”

“Always good to be in the company of a fellow officer, Lieutenant…” He paused for a moment, apparently forgetting the surname, “what was it again?”

“Partridge.”

“Like the bird? Oh, that would be too good, now wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, like the bird, sir.”

Algerian riflemen made prisoners by the German army. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2004-0194, 1914.

Smiling, Partridge rose to stand. He noticed how the sentry, rifle still in hand, looked at him suspiciously. There was a palpable tension.

“Oh, don’t mind Khalil, here,” said Walker. “He’s a scout with the 45th. Algerians, you know. Assigned to us as a guide.” The sentry nodded, uncomfortable with the introduction, as the Major continued.

“You startled him.”

“My apologies,” said Partridge.

Walker laughed. “How the hell did you manage to drop in on us anyway, sneaky bird?”

“Hole in the wire,” responded Partridge.

“Damn it! Jenkins?” cried the Major.

Quickly, a boy of about eighteen appeared.

“Yes sir.”

“Did I not tell you to take Fielding and repair the wire in front of this post?”

An artillery bombardment tore up these defenses the previous evening.

“Sir, yes sir,” said the boy, apologetically, “but we only got as far as this before the snipers started up again at dawn.”

“Well, this is a war, Corporal. You can expect to get shot at now and then.”

Walker put his arm on the boy’s shoulder.

“Alright, put two men on this part of the wall,” he said, pointing to the area where Partridge had penetrated, “and have Fielding and Spencer go back out and repair the rest of the wire this evening. Do I make myself clear?”

It was only seconds after the Corporal acknowledged him that the Major looked to Partridge and continued his tirade. “Ridiculous, how they send me boys to fight a war. Wouldn’t you agree, Partridge?”

“Yes, sir Major. Quite.” He was visibly fatigued.

“Ah, where are my manners?” Walker noticed Partridge’s exhaustion, and proceeded to escort him through the maze of tunnels. When they reached a large dugout, a deep hole about four feet wide and covered with corrugated iron, Walker took a seat by a small table, while Partridge crouched against the wall. He closed his eyes briefly and wiped at his brow with a soiled sleeve.

In the distance, an enemy howitzer — with a great noise like an errant tram — fired. On its heels, another thundered. Dirt flew and the dugout shook. Walker, seemingly unaffected, remarked: “The days have been quiet. You should be able to get all the rest you’ll need.”

“Thank you again, sir,” said Partridge, brushing debris from his uniform and still flinching from the boom. “You don’t know how relieved I am to be alive.”

“I would think so,” said Walker. “What, after being shot down. My God, man, it’s simply remarkable, you making it out of there in one piece. A few of my men actually witnessed the whole thing. Woke me yesterday when it happened.”

“Was anyone sent to investigate?”

“We tried, but as you can see,” he said, motioning to the air with both hands, “Fritz has us pretty well pinned.”

“So I hear,” said Partridge, shaking dirt from his cap.

“Ah, yes, very good,” responded Walker, not appreciating the humor. “Well then, I suppose you’ll be wanting to return to your squadron. Get some rest and I’ll have someone bring you some food. Just beans, I’m afraid. We finished the bacon this morning and the support lines have been temporarily cut off.”

“That reminds me, sir. About returning to my squadron?”

“Yes, Partridge.”

“When can I, sir? I mean, return, that is.”

“Wanting to get back up there so soon? You pilots are all the same.”

“I’m not a pilot, sir. I’m an observer. Aerial reconnaissance. I take photographs.”

“Oh, I see.” His tone seemed one of disapproval. “Your pilot, then? What happened to him?”

“Dead, sir.” He paused. “Dead before we hit the ground.”

“Ah, shame that. No point, then, I suppose, in sending any more of my men out there. Poor sod. God knows we would have tried. Never leave a man in the field. Isn’t that right Jenkins?” Walker hadn’t noticed the Corporal standing there. He held a plate of cold beans.

“Yes sir,” the boy answered, embarrassed to be caught listening.

Partridge gulped down the food in seconds, then slept for as many hours as the relentless pounding of the guns would allow.

When he awoke, it was dark, and a faint orange glow temporarily illuminated the dugout. As he slowly lifted his head from the wooden planks that had become his pillow, he rubbed his eyes. His back hurt. There was dirt under his fingernails. A few yards from him, a cupped match had sparked briefly.

“Cigarette?” The voice was familiar. It was the North African sentry.

“No thanks,” said Partridge, declining the offer. He left the dugout and wanted so badly to stand tall, stretching like an old man stirring from his bed. Then, remembering where he was, he quickly hunched over again, safe behind the parapet. “To what do I owe the honor of your presence?” he asked the sentry, who had since left the safety of the dugout to join him.

“I am to watch you,” said Khalil. “It was the major’s idea.” His English, heavy with French and another tongue (one quite foreign) was excellent.

“Very nice of you,” nodded Partridge, “and your Major Walker. But I assure you that I don’t need to be watched, my friend.” Coughing as he accidentally inhaled the Algerian’s cigarette smoke, Partridge cleared his throat. “I can take care of myself just fine, thank you.”

“Can you?” answered Khalil. “Then best to get yourself a rifle.”

“Oh,” replied the Lieutenant, anxious to clear up any misconception. “Did the Major not tell you? I’m a photographer. I take pictures. You know, photographs?” He was ready to mime the act of photography, but soon realized its futility.

The Algerian took another drag, slowly and carefully. “Out here, you’d do better with a rifle,” he said, flicking the remains of his cigarette to the spot where Partridge stood. In distance, there were gunshots.

A few dozen meters from where the two men stood, someone screamed.

Private Danny Spencer, dazed and bleeding, desperately cried for help. Sent out only minutes earlier to repair the wire, he and a boy named Tom Fielding were both barely out of the trench when the first bullet struck Spencer in the shoulder. A second shot, immediately following the crack and echo of the first, found the center of Fielding’s forehead. A sentry had begun to return fire, as Spencer, struggling with one good arm, dragged his companion back into the muddy trench.

“My God, man, what happened?” Partridge was the first to reach the wounded soldier as Khalil had since jumped to a fire step and taken up a defensive position.

“Help him” was all that the boy could reply, motioning with a bloodied finger to the lifeless body of the comrade he had rescued from the field. But there was little that Partridge, or the medic who had now arrived, could do.

“I’m sorry, private. He’s dead.”

Stretcher bearers in the trenches (source unknown)

Indeed, as the medic tended to Spencer, there was not much for Partridge or any of the others to do besides watch as stretcher-bearers took both boys away, disappearing down one of dark and dingy tunnels, their boots clacking on the duckboard. The brief volley had ended, and, for many of the men, the tedium of the trench soon returned. It was as if nothing unusual had happened.

Partridge, however, could not so easily forget the tragedy. “What will you do with the body?” he would later ask of Major Walker. It was a practical question, as the close quarters of the trenches — so much like graves themselves — made the thought of sharing space with the dead unbearable. The Major had just awakened from his dugout following word of the skirmish, and Partridge intercepted him on the way to the latrine.

“Not much choice, I’m afraid. We’ll wrap him in a blanket and dig a grave for the lad.” Walker was more than familiar with the procedure, and wondered why the observer would even ask such a morbid thing. “Graves Registration Officer will be notified. They can rebury him if need be.”

“How will they find him?”

“We’ll mark the grave, of course, and pull the poor boy’s meat ticket.” By this, Walker meant the soldier’s identity disc (https://www NULL.iwm NULL.org NULL.uk/history/first-world-war-identity-tags). All men in the trenches wore a pair of such tags. One, known as the cold meat ticket, remained with the body in the event of death. The other was catalogued.

“Oh,” said Partridge. “It’s just, I mean, I didn’t know what to expect.”

“Haven’t seen a lot of death over here, have you, Lieutenant.”

“No sir. I haven’t.”

“Might be good exercise for you then to oversee the burial.”

Partridge, bewildered, replied “I’m sorry, sir.”

“You are an officer in His Majesty’s service, are you not, Lieutenant? I’m a bit strapped for help with the command these days. Why, as it is, I lost two officers just this week. Until we’re able to reunite you with your squadron, I thought you might be willing to, um, put yourself to some good use as it were.” His tone was one of slight condescension, but it changed as he raised a hand and placed it on Partridge’s shoulder. “Look, man. These boys out here look to officers for leadership. And as I don’t very well see you carrying a rifle, I thought at least you’d be willing to help with some of the, how shall I put it, administrative duties.”

“Like digging graves.”

“Yes, the supervision of burials would be of great assistance to me. Among other duties: ration party, water party. If you could lend a hand until we get you back, I would see it as a personal favor.”

Partridge relented. “Yes, sir. Certainly. I’d be more than happy to help. It probably would do me some good. After all, I feel, well,” he hesitated, “partially responsible for the boy being out there.”

“Not your fault, man. I would have sent that boy to his death and a hundred others like him if it meant protecting the other men. The wire was broken. It needed to be repaired.”

“I suppose you’re right, sir.”

“Right. Yes. Then soon as possible take Jenkins and another man, get some tools and take Fielding to the westernmost wall, past the jakes. You stay with the body until they gather the equipment. Keep the rats away and all that. Jenkins will know what to do from there.”

“Yes sir.” His tone was less than enthusiastic.

“Oh, and Lieutenant,” Walker added.

“Yes?”

“Get yourself a helmet. Don’t be shy about taking one off a dead man.”

“Fine, yes. Thank you, sir.”

It was, without question, unnerving for Charles Partridge to sit, for what seemed like hours, alone with the body of Tom Fielding, crouched in the dark near the stink of the latrine while Jenkins gathered a second man for the burial. He had never been so near to a dead body before, and kept watch in the stagnant mud, as the Major had asked him to do, for signs of any rats that might come to nibble on the remains. Walker had given him a pistol to use on the vermin, advising him to not waste ammunition, however, unless he had a clear shot at one of the little buggers.

Only ten minutes into the vigil, Partridge did spot what looked like a tail, black and oily, slipping through the earth of the trench wall against which the body lay. It startled him, until he realized that he might have imagined the pest, having nodded off briefly while waiting for the Corporal to arrive.

But there it was again, a few minutes later, this time like worms emerging up from the earth beneath the dead soldier’s boots. Surely, his eyes must be playing tricks on him. When he went to investigate, there was nothing there.

A faint wind whistled like the hiss of a radiator.

But when the glow of an overhead flare provided adequate illumination, Partridge realized that there was, indeed, something alive and alien in the trench with him. What he saw were not tails or worms, but a blackness like dingy fingernails rummaging up through the mud.

It was then that the observer got his first and only glimpse of that which burrowed up to surround the corpse. Dirty brown were its digits and faded gray was its sunken and translucent skin. With a half-human face grotesquely askew on a bald and bony skull, the monster, whatever it was, looked at Partridge momentarily, and then, quite matter-of-factly, sank a row of gleaming teeth into the dead boy’s thigh. In less than seconds, it pulled the body under the soil, and quickly disappeared.

Partridge, the trousers of his uniform now involuntarily wet, had never even cocked the hammer on the pistol that he gripped. He just sat there in disbelief, motionless.

In all the months he had spent at the aerodrome pitying the poor wretches that sat in the trenches, he had never, even for a moment, considered that they were exposed to such horrors as these. His first instinct was to run and find Jenkins or the Major to tell them what had happened.

But he couldn’t move. Although the thing was most definitely gone, he began to wonder how the story would sound to someone who did not bear witness to the horrible thing. To tell any man what he had just seen would surely end his career. The men would think him quite mad, to be sure, if he told them that Fielding’s body was snatched by some beastie. After all, there was no evidence. The body was missing.

What’s worse: even if they did believe him, the fact that he had not expended even a single round on the creature in order to stop the violation of the corpse, well, that would surely paint him as even more the coward. He hesitated briefly, thinking it might be best to fire a shot into the air.

Madman. Coward. Neither was an option.

He couldn’t tell a soul.

Thus it was, regaining his composure, that Partridge put the pistol away, and lied to Jenkins upon his arrival with a third man a mere five minutes after the ordeal had passed. When Jenkins asked where the body of their comrade was, Partridge simply insisted that he couldn’t wait much longer, and that he chose to do the deed himself. They would take his word for it. After all, he was an officer.

“And the identity disc, sir?” asked Private Henderson, the man whose aid Jenkins had enlisted. He was quite confused by the Lieutenant having gotten his hands dirty. In his experience, officers just didn’t do such things.

“It’s, um,” stuttered the Lieutenant, sheepishly rooting through his pockets as if he had been caught stealing. “Right here.” The words came nervously, and with some degree of surprise as he fished from his breast pocket the aluminum plate on to which Fielding’s name, rank, unit and identification number had been stamped.

Odd that he did not recall removing the tag, but as it made his story more credible, he did not question his good fortune. Satisfied, Jenkins and Henderson returned to their duties, and as the sun began to rise on his second day in the trenches, Lieutenant Charles Partridge looked forward to getting some rest and forgetting the whole twisted affair.

Thursday began with an unusual silence.

He slept soundly. The air was still.

Enemy howitzers had not been heard in hours. Some men swore they heard birds singing. Convinced that this respite guaranteed an escort to the rear, Partridge gathered his few belongings and went to meet the Major. The tap dance of wooden planks clacking beneath his boots amplified his excitement. When he arrived at the command post, he saw Walker leaning against the parapet, straining to peer through his field glasses.

“Problem, Major?”

“13th and 15th battalions report some unusual enemy activity. Something about pipes poking up through the sandbags and wire. But I can’t see the bloody things. Jenkins?”

“Fritz is up to something,” said the Major. “I can feel it.”

As Partridge, too, could sense something eerie about the calm, he returned to his dugout, and spent the remainder of the afternoon talking to Khalil. He learned all about the Berber (for it was now confirmed by Jenkins that the foreigner was, indeed, from among those mysterious North African tribes), listening as Khalil told of his family near Algiers, and his service to France. It was fascinating to Partridge, a man who, before the war, spent little time outside of Shoreditch, save the occasional trip into the center of London.

Upon hearing of the many unusual and horrific things the Berber had seen, Partridge managed the courage to share, if veiled, his fears from the previous evening. He asked the North African if, after all this time as a witness to the atrocities of man, he believed in monsters.

The Berber laughed, exposing those devilish yellow teeth again. “You mean, like the English boogeyman?” Partridge had no idea where Khalil would have picked up the term, but it was as good as any.

“Yes, I suppose. Anything that’s, well, not quite… human.”

“I have seen many monstrous things, my friend. Women and children murdered. Men laying in pieces.”

“No, I mean, something unnatural. Not a man.”

He then relayed to the Berber some of his experience of the night before, at least, that is, what Partridge chose to tell. He said that before he managed to bury Fielding, he swore that something came up out of the ground to claim the corpse.

“Well,” began Khalil, entertaining the Lieutenant’s wild imaginings, “in my country, many of the old women speak of ghuls (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Ghoul).”

“Ghouls?” asked a curious Partridge.

“Yes, ghouls, as you English would say. Foul things that pick the bones of the dead. You believe you saw one of these, eh?”

“I don’t know what I saw. I was probably just tired.”

“Man who sees ghul is marked,” said Khalil, his tone dead serious.

“Marked?” answered Partridge, nervously. “Marked for what?”

“For hospital, my friend,” joked the Berber. “You seeing things!”

The two of them laughed, Partridge with some uneasiness. It was pointless to press the issue further. No one would believe him, and he was beginning to doubt the whole incident himself.

Around 1700 hours, a slight wind began to blow.

A faint but acrid smell awoke Partridge, who, in anticipation of further duty, had chosen to nap. Rising from the dugout, he noticed that Khalil had already wrapped a cloth around his face because of the suffocating odor.

“What the devil is that?” Partridge searched his uniform for something to cover his face. Tears formed in his eyes. He tried to swallow, but felt like he was choking.

“I do not know,” came the muffled reply.

Both men scrambled to the parapet.

Across no man’s land crept a yellowish green smoke. At first, the men gathered along the trench had thought perhaps it was the residue of some new gunpowder being used by the enemy. But no one had reported hearing a single shot. Cannon and rifle, mortar and machine gun, all were silent.

Early gas masks were little more than cloth.

It was not until the smoke gathered to become a much thicker fog —almost four feet in height and rising — that its purpose was clear: the cloud itself was the weapon. Turning an almost incandescent blue as it traveled south across the Belgian countryside, the gas began to instantly choke its victims. Some men closest, the most unprepared, came rising up out of their trenches, spitting blood as they stumbled.

Partridge, collapsing in horror under the dying weight of Henderson — the boy from last evening who only seconds before stood proudly beside him — cried out to Khalil as he fell back into the dugout. The Berber had already begun blindly firing his rifle. He called out to Partridge to likewise grab a weapon and hold off whatever this attack would bring.

Terrified, Partridge drew the body of the fallen soldier even closer to his person, hiding his face in the boy’s armpit. There, he discovered, he could more easily breath, pressed firmly against the fabric of the soldier’s uniform. Whatever this attack was, he might survive by laying low.

Others were not so fortunate. Major Walker could be heard giving the order to retreat, but many men had not the strength to overcome the chlorine gas. Bodies fell about Partridge like heavy footsteps, splashing mud and filth. In the chaos, he heard some of the men escaping, some calling for help, and others for their brothers to follow. For a moment, he considered their fate, thinking it better to stay where he was, digging himself even further into the dirt of the dugout where he could escape the fumes.

Huge holes in the lines, some hundreds of yards in length, were now open. Dozens of men, Canadian and French, scrambled. Some made it to the woods. Others found their way to supporting trenches toward the rear. Those remaining, staggering like drunks from the effects of the gas, dropped in their tracks and died.

German infantry, wearing cloth respirators on their faces, charged.

Major Walker, safe for the moment about a mile from his battalion’s former position and clear of the ever-creeping gas, leaned against the wall of one of the support trenches and watched through his field glasses. Turning to Jenkins, he asked for a report on known casualties. The Corporal was uncertain of their losses, but did have a few reports regarding those not seen retreating. The names were familiar: Khalil, Henderson, Philips, Watkins, Nichols, MacPherson. All were presumed dead.

“And Lieutenant Partridge?” asked the Major.

“One of the men saw him fall at the same time as Henderson, sir.”

“Damn shame,” said Walker.

Somewhere towards the front, in a trench devoid of all but the piles of the dead and dying, the mist had subsided. Those spared by the gas and the bayonets of the German infantry could now be heard praying to God for a quick and easy death. With heavy stomachs and burning lungs, they gasped for air and waited to die.

Partridge, rolling Henderson’s body off of him, found it safe to once again breathe. Indeed, not only had the air cleared, but the enemy had also apparently moved on.

He had survived.

Searching among the dead for a pistol or rifle with which to arm himself, he pushed aside body after lifeless body. It was when he uncovered Khalil —ghastly white from the effects of the gas — that he stopped. A thick green froth oozed from the corpse’s mouth.

I’m sorry Khalil.

He would have said a prayer over the body of the Berber, knowing now that Christian or Muslim, atheist or other, it mattered little to the dead what was said. I’m sorry Khalil, he thought to himself yet again, standing over the man’s body, staring into his empty eyes. But I feel no guilt, my friend.

Alone in the trench, Partridge paused to rest.

He was alive, but as he closed his eyes to thank whatever angel had protected him, he glimpsed, albeit briefly, what looked like the black and oily tail of a rat curling its way around the Berber’s throat.

Or was it worms that coiled to grip the dead man’s head?

The ghoul had returned to claim another meal.

Shaking with disbelief, Partridge tripped over the body as he stumbled back and away from the vile thing that had come in search of food. The monster continued, undaunted, to devour Khalil, dragging much of him into the mud. He watched as it chewed the dead man’s nose like the tip of an uncooked sausage.

Immediately, a second creature rose from the pile, its rotting breath so strong that he felt his bile rising. Frantically reaching with one free hand, he found a rifle with which to bash in the thing’s brains. One strike, and the ghoul’s head — white and hairless like a melon — split wide open. Standing to confront now the monster consuming Khalil, Partridge pulled back the bolt of the Enfield he had retrieved from a dead man. But there was no ammunition in the chamber.

He would have to settle for its use a club.

It was then that the observer looked around to fully grasp his predicament. Eight of the horrid things stood around him, hissing like so many burst pipes. More emerged from the dirt walls of the trench, scurrying like spiders. Others, more muscular, stood like men — old, withered men, but men nonetheless, though the tallest among them was only three, maybe four feet in height. Hunched and skeletal, with eyes burning like the tips of cigarettes, the creatures picked at their food.

One of them licked its foul lips in anticipation. Another sniffed the rot in air through tiny nostril slits. They were blind, ancient hunger. And it was mealtime.

With the butt-end of the rifle, Partridge swung at their leathery arms.

“Back!” he yelled. None even so much as acknowledged him.

Mindless, they continued to pick at the bones beneath them, delighting in the flesh of the bloated soldiers whose lungs had burst. Partridge sensed their appetite, listening to tongues clicking. He watched as one fiend dislodged a dead man’s eyeball and gulped it down.

Cold meat. He would soon be cold meat.

He was certain of it. No one was coming back to rescue him. He had feigned death all too well. Better, perhaps, to take his chances over the top.

This thought occurred to him as perhaps his only option in those fleeting moments before an inevitable end as food for the wretched things. He would have to flee the trench to escape them. He could be captured, sure, but he just might make it to the rear, too. Clinging to that hope, he resolutely swung at the circling vermin one last time, and then bounded up over the sand bags that lined the parapet.

His final utterance, barely a whisper, was but a single word: balls.

Lieutenant Partridge, charging like a man of single purpose and sound mind, got as far as the first line of barbed wire before the enemy machine guns tore him to pieces. From a safe distance, Major Walker, spotting first the blaze of the chattering Maxim and then the hastening blur of the desperate young observer, watched intently through his field glasses as the dying man held his rifle high.

It is said that some soldiers strained to see above the walls of their trenches, prompted by their comrades who could not believe the bravery of one lone man charging the enemy. Some called him mad. Others thought him a hero. This downed airman, an observer who fell to the trenches and took up a rifle, became the inspiration for many, and the impetus for an organized push to retake the field. Hundreds of impassioned men, French and Canadian troops, fought tirelessly in the weeks following to close the gaps in the line and regain control of the Ypres Salient.

Many years after the war, Horace Walker, leg amputated in 1917 following the battle of Verdun, his eyesight now failing from advanced age, made the long voyage to London from his home in Montreal. From London, he would hire a car to Shoreditch and pay a visit to Major George Henry Partridge, retired, and his wife, Edna. His mission: to personally deliver a posthumous Victoria Cross for the couple’s fallen son. In all his years of service, Major Walker said he had never before or since met a man so selfless, nor had he encountered anyone as mindful of the lives of his fellow soldiers as their boy, Charles Wilson Partridge, Lieutenant of the No. 6 Squadron of His Majesty’s Royal Flying Corps.

“No man was as brave,” said he.

“Yes, sir.” The young Corporal, as usual, was right beside him.

“Jenkins, tell all sentries to report any movement along enemy lines, and put a fresh man at the listening post.”

“Major Walker, sir?” interjected an impatient Partridge.

“Damn it, what is it, Lieutenant?”

From the look on Walker’s face, Partridge pretty much knew there was little point in asking for his escort. Even the major’s mustache looked aggravated. He would not be granting any escort today.

“Fritz is up to something,” said the Major. “I can feel it.”

As Partridge, too, could sense something eerie about the calm, he returned to his dugout, and spent the remainder of the afternoon talking to Khalil. He learned all about the Berber (for it was now confirmed by Jenkins that the foreigner was, indeed, from among those mysterious North African tribes), listening as Khalil told of his family near Algiers, and his service to France. It was fascinating to Partridge, a man who, before the war, spent little time outside of Shoreditch, save the occasional trip into the center of London.

Upon hearing of the many unusual and horrific things the Berber had seen, Partridge managed the courage to share, if veiled, his fears from the previous evening. He asked the North African if, after all this time as a witness to the atrocities of man, he believed in monsters.

The Berber laughed, exposing those devilish yellow teeth again. “You mean, like the English boogeyman?” Partridge had no idea where Khalil would have picked up the term, but it was as good as any.

“Yes, I suppose. Anything that’s, well, not quite… human.”

“I have seen many monstrous things, my friend. Women and children murdered. Men laying in pieces.”

“No, I mean, something unnatural. Not a man.”

He then relayed to the Berber some of his experience of the night before, at least, that is, what Partridge chose to tell. He said that before he managed to bury Fielding, he swore that something came up out of the ground to claim the corpse.

“Well,” began Khalil, entertaining the Lieutenant’s wild imaginings, “in my country, many of the old women speak of ghuls.”

“Ghouls?” asked a curious Partridge.

“Yes, ghouls, as you English would say. Foul things that pick the bones of the dead. You believe you saw one of these, eh?”

“I don’t know what I saw. I was probably just tired.”

“Man who sees ghul is marked,” said Khalil, his tone dead serious.

“Marked?” answered Partridge, nervously. “Marked for what?”

“For hospital, my friend,” joked the Berber. “You seeing things!”

The two of them laughed, Partridge with some uneasiness. It was pointless to press the issue further. No one would believe him, and he was beginning to doubt the whole incident himself.

Around 1700 hours, a slight wind began to blow.

A faint but acrid smell awoke Partridge, who, in anticipation of further duty, had chosen to nap. Rising from the dugout, he noticed that Khalil had already wrapped a cloth around his face because of the suffocating odor.

“What the devil is that?” Partridge searched his uniform for something to cover his face. Tears formed in his eyes. He tried to swallow, but felt like he was choking.

“I do not know,” came the muffled reply.

Both men scrambled to the parapet.

Across no man’s land crept a yellowish green smoke. At first, the men gathered along the trench had thought perhaps it was the residue of some new gunpowder being used by the enemy. But no one had reported hearing a single shot. Cannon and rifle, mortar and machine gun, all were silent.

It was not until the smoke gathered to become a much thicker fog —almost four feet in height and rising — that its purpose was clear: the cloud itself was the weapon. Turning an almost incandescent blue as it traveled south across the Belgian countryside, the gas began to instantly choke its victims. Some men closest, the most unprepared, came rising up out of their trenches, spitting blood as they stumbled.

Partridge, collapsing in horror under the dying weight of Henderson — the boy from last evening who only seconds before stood proudly beside him — cried out to Khalil as he fell back into the dugout. The Berber had already begun blindly firing his rifle. He called out to Partridge to likewise grab a weapon and hold off whatever this attack would bring.

Terrified, Partridge drew the body of the fallen soldier even closer to his person, hiding his face in the boy’s armpit. There, he discovered, he could more easily breath, pressed firmly against the fabric of the soldier’s uniform. Whatever this attack was, he might survive by laying low.

Others were not so fortunate. Major Walker could be heard giving the order to retreat, but many men had not the strength to overcome the chlorine gas. Bodies fell about Partridge like heavy footsteps, splashing mud and filth. In the chaos, he heard some of the men escaping, some calling for help, and others for their brothers to follow. For a moment, he considered their fate, thinking it better to stay where he was, digging himself even further into the dirt of the dugout where he could escape the fumes.

Huge holes in the lines, some hundreds of yards in length, were now open. Dozens of men, Canadian and French, scrambled. Some made it to the woods. Others found their way to supporting trenches toward the rear. Those remaining, staggering like drunks from the effects of the gas, dropped in their tracks and died.

German infantry, wearing cloth respirators on their faces, charged.

Major Walker, safe for the moment about a mile from his battalion’s former position and clear of the ever-creeping gas, leaned against the wall of one of the support trenches and watched through his field glasses. Turning to Jenkins, he asked for a report on known casualties. The Corporal was uncertain of their losses, but did have a few reports regarding those not seen retreating. The names were familiar: Khalil, Henderson, Philips, Watkins, Nichols, MacPherson. All were presumed dead.

“And Lieutenant Partridge?” asked the Major.

“One of the men saw him fall at the same time as Henderson, sir.”

“Damn shame,” said Walker.

Somewhere towards the front, in a trench devoid of all but the piles of the dead and dying, the mist had subsided. Those spared by the gas and the bayonets of the German infantry could now be heard praying to God for a quick and easy death. With heavy stomachs and burning lungs, they gasped for air and waited to die.

Partridge, rolling Henderson’s body off of him, found it safe to once again breathe. Indeed, not only had the air cleared, but the enemy had also apparently moved on.

He had survived.

Searching among the dead for a pistol or rifle with which to arm himself, he pushed aside body after lifeless body. It was when he uncovered Khalil —ghastly white from the effects of the gas — that he stopped. A thick green froth oozed from the corpse’s mouth.

I’m sorry Khalil.

He would have said a prayer over the body of the Berber, knowing now that Christian or Muslim, atheist or other, it mattered little to the dead what was said. I’m sorry Khalil, he thought to himself yet again, standing over the man’s body, staring into his empty eyes. But I feel no guilt, my friend.

Alone in the trench, Partridge paused to rest.

He was alive, but as he closed his eyes to thank whatever angel had protected him, he glimpsed, albeit briefly, what looked like the black and oily tail of a rat curling its way around the Berber’s throat.

Or was it worms that coiled to grip the dead man’s head?

The ghoul had returned to claim another meal.

Shaking with disbelief, Partridge tripped over the body as he stumbled back and away from the vile thing that had come in search of food. It continued, undaunted, to devour Khalil, dragging much of him into the mud. He watched as it chewed the dead man’s nose like the tip of an uncooked sausage.

Immediately, a second creature rose from the pile, its rotting breath so strong that he felt his bile rising. Frantically reaching with one free hand, he found a rifle with which to bash in the thing’s brains. One strike, and the ghoul’s head — white and hairless like a melon — split wide open. Standing to confront now the monster consuming Khalil, Partridge pulled back the bolt of the Enfield he had retrieved from a dead man. But there was no ammunition in the chamber.

He would have to settle for its use a club.

It was then that the observer looked around to fully grasp his predicament. Eight of the horrid things stood around him, hissing like so many burst pipes. More emerged from the dirt walls of the trench, scurrying like spiders. Others, more muscular, stood like men — old, withered men, but men nonetheless, though the tallest among them was only three, maybe four feet in height. Hunched and skeletal, with eyes burning like the tips of cigarettes, the creatures picked at their food.

One of them licked its foul lips in anticipation. Another sniffed the rot in air through tiny nostril slits. They were blind, ancient hunger. And it was mealtime.

With the butt-end of the rifle, Partridge swung at their leathery arms.

“Back!” he yelled. None even so much as acknowledged him.

Mindless, they continued to pick at the bones beneath them, delighting in the flesh of the bloated soldiers whose lungs had burst. Partridge sensed their appetite, listening to tongues clicking. He watched as one fiend dislodged a dead man’s eyeball and gulped it down.

Cold meat. He would soon be cold meat.

He was certain of it. No one was coming back to rescue him. He had feigned death all too well. Better, perhaps, to take his chances over the top.

This thought occurred to him as perhaps his only option in those fleeting moments before an inevitable end as food for the wretched things. He would have to flee the trench to escape them. He could be captured, sure, but he just might make it to the rear, too. Clinging to that hope, he resolutely swung at the circling vermin one last time, and then bounded up over the sand bags that lined the parapet.

His final utterance, barely a whisper, was but a single word: balls.

Lieutenant Partridge, charging like a man of single purpose and sound mind, got as far as the first line of barbed wire before the enemy machine guns tore him to pieces. From a safe distance, Major Walker, spotting first the blaze of the chattering Maxim and then the hastening blur of the desperate young observer, watched intently through his field glasses as the dying man held his rifle high.

It is said that some soldiers strained to see above the walls of their trenches, prompted by their comrades who could not believe the bravery of one lone man charging the enemy. Some called him mad. Others thought him a hero. This downed airman, an observer who fell to the trenches and took up a rifle, became the inspiration for many, and the impetus for an organized push to retake the field. Hundreds of impassioned men, French and Canadian troops, fought tirelessly in the weeks following to close the gaps in the line and regain control of the Ypres Salient.

Many years after the war, Horace Walker, leg amputated in 1917 following the battle of Verdun, his eyesight now failing from advanced age, made the long voyage to London from his home in Montreal. From London, he would hire a car to Shoreditch and pay a visit to Major George Henry Partridge, retired, and his wife, Edna. His mission: to personally deliver a posthumous Victoria Cross for the couple’s fallen son. In all his years of service, Major Walker said he had never before or since met a man so selfless, nor had he encountered anyone as mindful of the lives of his fellow soldiers as their boy, Charles Wilson Partridge, Lieutenant of the No. 6 Squadron of His Majesty’s Royal Flying Corps.

“No man was as brave,” said he.